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Evolution Martial Arts Academy builds strength of character

Marcus Villagran
intern2@nnbw.biz
Men training in Jiu-Jitsu spar during excercises at Evolution Martial Arts Academy.
Joseph Quintos |

At Evolution Martial Arts Academy, learning to punch and kick is only a small part of the curriculum.

“Martial arts is about becoming the best person that you can be,” co-owner and co-founder Ray Neill said in a phone interview with NNBW.

The family-owned and -operated school has been championing character development and community involvement since it opened in 2008 in Sparks. It features classes in Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Goju Shorei, Muay Thai Kickboxing, Charles Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and boxing. New students get a free week of classes to try out programs.

“We offer the program for anyone from four years on up to however old they can be to get on the mat,” Neill said.

He even works with a few students with Parkinson’s on an individual basis.

Students at the school have certain character development requirements at each belt level. For the first belt, students have to set goals.

“As a white belt … most people write down ‘earn a black belt.’” Alvin Santiago, 25, lead instructor, said in an interview with NNBW at Evolution Martial Arts.

The requirements become more challenging from there.

To earn a green belt, students have to organize a community cleanup project. Santiago, who started at Evolution Martial Arts around 2011 as a student, decided to do his project at Pah Rah Park. But Santiago said students can fulfill these requirements however they choose.

“I’ve actually had students do a gardening project. They planted a garden and they showed everything that they did throughout that whole timeframe and ended up selling the produce at the end,” Santiago explained.

At the red belt, Santiago said students have to memorize certain texts. One of them is “Our Deepest Fear” by Marianne Williamson, a poem about overcoming fear and reaching one’s own full potential to inspire others.

For a blue belt, they have to go through empathy training, spending 24 hours either mute, blind, or in a wheelchair.

“We say that our job is to give our students the tools that they need to make better choices, so they have the opportunity to take the things from here at our school out of the dojo and into the world,” Neill said.

Much of Neill’s inspiration for these aspects of his curriculum come from his time taking the Ultimate Black Belt Test.

The test stressed community involvement. For example, Ray said he built homes in Alabama for his training. That’s aside from the 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and 100 squats he had to do each day.

According to Neill, every lead instructor is at least a 1st-degree black belt. Matt McBride, who’s been a lead instructor at the school for nearly eight years, is one of three Goju Shorei Black Belts in the Reno-Sparks area and the only one in Sparks. He already had over 15 years of martial arts experience before he came to the school, but found it still had much to offer.

“They were constantly evolving the martial arts, finding new and better ways to apply the moves that we were doing and having different martial artists from completely different background styles coming together,” McBride said in an interview at the martial arts academy. “Finding better alternatives is what really sparked me to come here and give some of my ideas.”

Last June, Evolution Martial Arts began a more dedicated Jiu-Jitsu program at least five nights a week. It’s led by co-owner Jason Swanson, one of the highest ranked Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in the area with around 20 years of experience.

“They say Jiu-Jitsu was developed for women because smaller people can defeat bigger people,” Swanson explained. “I have everything from 70-year-old retired doctors to 80-pound 12-year-old girls and everything in between.”

His wife Tonya started Jiu-Jitsu three and a half years ago.

“You would think they’ll probably just smash her, well not necessarily because my timing might be a little bit better or the skill level might be a little bit better,” Tonya Swanson said. “It just kind of falls down to skill level.”

Leah Neill, Ray’s wife, is another co-owner and lead instructor at the school. Their 16-year-old son Ricky is also very involved with the family business. Ray Neill admitted that working so much with family does have its difficult moments.

“I think because we are who we are we found a way to enjoy being around each other on a regular basis even in the difficult times,” Neill said.

Neill doesn’t discount the possibility of expanding his business someday, but he’s cautious.

“We did not want to ever grow so fast that we cannot take care of our already established customer base,” Neill said.

He said that there are many reasons for people to incorporate martial arts into their life. Famous martial artists like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris inspired Neill. For Santiago, he turned to martial arts when was getting bullied at school.

“If I didn’t get the confidence I got from (martial arts) I don’t know where I’d be,” Santiago said.

“I feel like I need to be here,” hen said. “It’s like my second family.”

Evolution Martial Arts Academy is located on 4848 Sparks Blvd. in Sparks. Call 775-626-7577.